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‘Just barely making it’: Boise residents struggle to stay afloat amid rising rents and plunging vacancy rates

To afford Boise's average $1,300-a-month apartment you should earn about $45,000 to $50,000, according to a local financial planner.

BOISE, Idaho — Emily Pohlman's housing search lasted months. 

As soon as she woke up in the morning, she checked for new rental listings in Boise. She reached out to friends, searched Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace, and set up alerts to ping her phone the moment a new apartment listing went live. 

"I've been looking for about eight months for anything under a thousand, and this is the first one I found," Pohlman said. "It was really hard." 

Pohlman pays $875 for her spot in a house off Vista Avenue that has been divvied up into multiple apartments. That's nearly double what she paid several years ago for a similar 450-square foot unit in the North End, but she says she feels lucky to have it. She was able to contact the landlord and put in an application within ten minutes of the listing going up.

"She said I was the first person to get a tour, and by the end of the day she had had 30+ applications," Pohlman said. "It was the middle of the day. I had to leave work, get down here, see the place, sign everything, get a check - it happened very, very fast."

Credit: Tyson White/KTVB
Emily Pohlman, 30, searched for eight months before landing her current apartment on the Boise Bench. "With renting right now, it's just as much as buying a house," she said.

Pohlman is among the growing number of people in Boise who face mounting struggles to find a place to live as rents rise and vacancy rates plunge, consistently hovering at around two or three percent. 

MORE: Boise ranks 5th in U.S. for rising rent prices

The average one-bedroom apartment in Boise rents for $1,062, while two-bedrooms go for an average of $1,344 - a more than 20 percent increase in just one year, according to a February report by apartmentguide.com.

In March, the average Boise rental listing price was $1,395, according to Zillow.com. 

Purchasing a home - long considered a typical milestone of adulthood  - is also out of reach for many. In March, the median home sale price in Ada County reached $309,000, according to Boise Regional Realtors, up from $197,000 just five years ago. 

The conversation around affordable housing often focuses on the state's most vulnerable members: the disabled, the underemployed, those cycling in and out of homeless shelters. But as housing costs in the Treasure Valley continue to rise, even those considered to have achieved the markers of success expected to confer more security - like a college education, jobs in the professional sector, or training in a skilled trade - are finding themselves fighting to stay afloat. 

RELATED: Here are the average home and rental prices in each Treasure Valley city

Pohlman, who has lived in Boise for 12 years, graduated from Boise State and works full-time as an administrative professional at a local structural engineering firm. That salary was being stretched a little too thin, so she recently took on a second job bartending at a pizza restaurant to help cover expenses.  

"When I graduated college, I was kind of like, 'oh great, this is when it starts:' Being an adult, getting to live in your own space and start that kind of a life," she said. "But I'm working as hard as I can, 40 hours a week, and still just barely making it."


Pouring too much of your monthly income into housing - whether it is rent or a mortgage payment - can be hazardous, according to Jacob Williams, a financial planner with Helmstar Group. 

He advises spending no more than 28 to 36 percent of your monthly income on a place to live. Any more than that, and you run the risk of not having enough left over for other bills - student loans, groceries, a car payment - or of putting too little away in savings. 

Credit: Tyson White/KTVB
Financial planner Jacob Williams says people should make at least $40,000 to comfortably afford the average apartment in Boise.

RELATED: Oregon set to become 1st state with mandatory rent controls

Sticking to that guideline can be tricky. To afford Boise's average $1,300-a-month apartment, then, "they should be earning about $45,000 to $50,000 to comfortably pay for that and save a little bit for emergency reserves at the same time,” Williams said.

He encouraged everyone to take a look at their finances and work out what they could actually afford - and not to get swept up in comparison.

Getting roommates, cutting out other expenses, and sticking to a budget can help provide a little breathing room to those struggling to afford a place to live, he added. 

"It's easy for small things to really add up," he said. "And for a lot of people I think it's the smaller things that they don't account for, the little binges that they don't keep track of. Those can add up as well." 


There is not much more belt-tightening Mary and Troy Kemp can do. 

The couple was already on a strict budget, with Mary's income as a policy advocate for the American Cancer Action Network keeping the family afloat as her husband takes on the unpaid internships required for the final year of his master's degree. 

The couple downsized from a three-bedroom house in the North End to their current unit at the Reedhouse Apartments in southwest Boise to keep costs lower. They share one car, and have slashed eating out and paying for entertainment from their budget.

"I don't think we've gone out to a movie in forever," Mary Kemp said.

Credit: Tyson White/KTVB
"If you don't have to move right now, you shouldn't do it because it's going to be difficult to find a place to rent," Mary Kemp says. Rent at her Boise apartment complex will go up by 40 percent May 1.

But earlier this year, the Kemps and everyone else in the complex received a notice from Kennedy Wilson, the Beverly Hills investment company that purchased the Reedhouse Apartments in November. 

Rent was going up.

Two-bedroom, two-bath units like the one in which the Kemps lived jumped from $1,200 a month in April to $1,700 May 1, a 41 percent increase. Mary Kemp said she was able to negotiate her rent down to $1,450, but estimated that fully half of the people who lived in the complex have moved out, unable to afford the higher price. 

"There are a lot of people in this complex right now who went from an affordable home to, all of a sudden, it's not affordable," Kemp said. "There are people who won't have an option to stay."

MORE: Are landlords unfairly profiting off application fees?

Credit: KTVB

The new rate will chew through a full 60 percent of her family's monthly income, double the allotment that Williams and the Helmstar Group say they should spend.

Two unexpected surgeries had already nearly tapped out the couple's cash reserves, and the rent increase is making a stressful situation even more difficult, she said. Kemp sold her sewing machine, and said she has been going through her home, deciding which other possessions could bring in money to get her and her husband through the summer.

"We don't really have any savings right now," Kemp said.  "If there were an emergency, we wouldn't be able to take care of it." 

Adding to her frustrations, she said, was the fact that Kennedy Wilson used a Freddie Mac loan - government money that is typically earmarked to create affordable housing - to buy the complex. 

But $1,700 a month is anything but affordable, Kemp argues.

"I think more people need to say 'this is not OK,'" she said. "We're not willing to sit back and let this be reality, something needs to change."

INTERACTIVE: See how the Treasure Valley has grown in the last 100 years


Houses and apartments pop onto the market, then disappear at lightning speed, renter Kaitie Branton said. 

"Just finding a place to start with was next to impossible," she said. "As soon as I would find a place that was a possibility, it was already gone." 

Branton's elderly dog, which physically couldn't make it up and down the stairs to an apartment on the second floor or above, complicated the hunt. So when she spotted a Craigslist ad for a ground-level unit near Boise State for only $750 a month, she jumped on it. 

"The price was unreal," she said. "I did find out there's black mold in the bathroom. That might be why." 

Credit: Tyson White/KTVB
Kaitie Branton said she discovered problems with her apartment unit after she moved in, but can't afford to get a better place.

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Other issues she discovered in her apartment, including a proliferation of spiders, holes in doors and no insulation in one of the walls, weren't enough to persuade her to look for a new place before her lease ends in July. 

Branton is only six credits away from graduating from BSU, and balances her schoolwork with a full-time job as the nightshift front-desk staffer at a hotel. During the day, she also works for a local theater company, creating the scenery for their productions.

Despite that grueling schedule, she can't afford to move into a nicer apartment. And complaining about problems in her unit or demanding the landlord fix things could leave her in a perilous housing position, she said. 

"I didn't fight anything else, because I have no place to go," she said. "I was too afraid to put up a fight and get the fallout for that. I'm just going to ride it out."

ALSO: Is the Treasure Valley ready for the massive population growth expected by 2040?

Although she has enjoyed living alone, calling it "a treat" and "a luxury," Branton said she will most likely look for roommates when her lease is over - or take a more drastic option. 

Friends and coworkers have moved out to Nampa and Caldwell, she said, choosing relatively lower rent prices and a long commute over duking it out in the trenches of Boise apartment-hunting. But Branton is mulling a bigger jump after her degree is in hand: leaving Idaho entirely, in part to seek out better job prospects.

"I think about moving all the time," she said. "And the difficulty of finding an apartment here kind of helps push me out."

Editor's note: Growing Idaho is a month-long series of KTVB special reports. 

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